By Stan Alleyne, senior consultant
I bet many folks sighed in relief when the Twin Cities Marathon concluded Sunday without any significant disruption. It was a far cry from the feelings earlier in the week when the St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter communicated its intentions to disrupt the marathon in protest of the injustices that African Americans have endured locally and nationally.
The threat of disruption to the marathon created quite a stir, garnering all kinds of news coverage and a frenzy of social media posts ranging from legitimate safety concerns, to racist rants, to confused supporters of the movement who couldn’t understand the group’s strategy.
So what have we learned from this potential powder keg of a situation?
When individuals and groups feel marginalized or ignored, they face a choice: to allow the marginalization to continue, or not. If it is just a misunderstanding, perhaps a discussion can clear the air. But Black Lives Matter is giving voice to a conscious choice being made by thousands of citizens: the status quo is not acceptable, and they insist that their voices be part of shaping the future. It is a nonviolent effort to convey urgency.
From my 20-plus years as a communications professional in the public and private sectors, I know that individuals and groups must feel respected, heard and understood before progress can be made. So if we as a society really intend to close the disparities gaps — for the benefit of individuals and our overall economic vitality — then we need to ensure that we are hearing each other.
Community leaders, business executives and elected officials need to learn from these communication/engagement issues. Why? Because even if they aren’t on the picket lines or participating in a demonstration, your employees and other key stakeholders are being affected by this movement. And they are counting on their leaders to incorporate new voices into the decision-making process for the future.
What can you do?
1. You must find the time to listen and dialogue with individuals and groups who feel ignored.
It won’t always be a fun conversation and it could slow down the decision-making process, but more times than not, it will save a decision-maker time and resources. But more important, it will enrich the decision-making process by involving diverse voices that aren’t typically invited into the boardroom or CEO’s office.
A great way for an elected official, civic leader, educator or business executive to prove that they really want to hear different perspectives is to start inviting people of color to the decision-making table at the beginning of the process. Let’s stop waiting for the next protest and start changing the conversations (and any discriminatory policies and practices) now.
2. Be courageous enough to shift directions and compromise when necessary.
Effective leaders should take advantage of the opportunity to receive honest, unfiltered feedback and input. Ask the tough, maybe “embarrassing” questions and don’t assume that you understand what different individuals and groups are thinking and feeling. Give them the opportunity to tell you and put value on the perspective they bring.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman should be commended for rearranging his schedule to meet face-to-face with representatives of Black Lives Matters. In hindsight, a meeting earlier in the process could have lowered anxiety levels sooner and thwarted the media onslaught, yet Mayor Coleman had the sense to realize a very vocal group of his stakeholders were feeling disrespected and misunderstood. He gave them his time and attention and everyone benefited from it.
3. Expect – and respect – disruption: it is a reminder of the pace of change around you.
No institutions in our society can expect to navigate the changes in our communities without confronting tremendous challenges. And no leader should be surprised to learn from time to time that their organization didn’t adequately anticipate the consequences of meeting some of those challenges. It is, in fact, a sign of respect and significance that citizens expect their institutions to help lead the community in times of fast change. As the demographics and expectations of our communities evolve, we want our institutions – companies, elected leaders, civic organizations — to reflect all of us.
Let’s see what happens next. Black Lives Matters is not going away. Some say the group is just getting started. I think this is a perfect time for leaders to lead, and give individuals and groups that have been silent for far too long the opportunity to be heard, understood and valued contributors.
Photo credit: CC BY 2.0 MLT2005 | flickr